Donald Trump was hardly into his first full calendar year as president before a chorus of critics and pundits began to use the word “dystopian” to describe his administration and the social milieu that it seemed to precipitate. In March 2017, novelist John Feffer wrote, “Unpredictability, incompetence, and demolition are the dystopian watchwords of the current moment, as the world threatens to fragment before our very eyes.” Months later, Entertainment Weekly ran an article with the hypertext title, “How the Trump era made dystopia cool again.” The A.V. Club and Vulture both proposed that we had reached “peak dystopia.” Writing for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore described our era as “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction.” (Not of, but “for.”) In early 2018, when the internet was briefly galvanized by talk of Oprah Winfrey running against Donald Trump in 2020, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane described that potential contest as “troublingly dystopian.”
What a curious, discomfiting situation we find ourselves in when the buzzword à la mode is 130 years old, and the literary genre we once relied on to explicate life behind the Iron Curtain is now apparently reflective of contemporary America. But what exactly is it about the Trump administration that makes us reach for such specific literary terminology? Is it the sudden resurgence of white supremacy and fascist sympathies in the American heartland, providing a speculative path toward American authoritarianism? Perhaps, but neither racism nor fascism are requirements of the genre. Are we terrified that this administration will instigate a world-ending nuclear conflict with North Korea, and/or Russia—and/or a devastating economic war with China, and/or Europe? If so, the relevant literary genre would be apocalyptic, not necessarily dystopian. Or do we say “dystopian” hyperbolically—reflecting our anxieties about a nightmarish social sphere of distress, confusion, and disorientation? That might be better described as surreal, or absurd. Are we alarmed by the hard pivot away from professionalism, decency, and decorum? Issues like these are more at home in the novel of manners, such as Pride and Prejudice. Or are we simply dismayed and alarmed by the convergence of an outrageous, semi-competent administration and a general mood of anti-intellectualism? That would be a job for satire. Trump himself—bumbling, bombastic, egoic, unaware, unpredictable, unread—would be more at home as the quixotic protagonist of a picaresque, or as a delusional child king in a fairy tale.
It is my suspicion that we call some things “dystopian” for the same reason we sometimes abuse correct usage of “gothic,” “ironic,” or “Kafkaesque”: We like the sound of it, and we enjoy invoking its vaguer associations. But if we’re going by conventional definitions, it is arguable that there was nothing specifically or egregiously dystopian about the Trump administration until last April, when the administration announced a new “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossing, becoming the first White House in memory to implement a standing procedure for separating migrant children from their parents, even as they attempted to surrender themselves legally in a plea for sanctuary.
Dystopia is a rich, heterogeneous, and dynamic category of film and literature. However, when we look at the most successful, enduring works of this genre, we find the same institution caught in the crosshairs of various fictional totalitarian regimes, again and again: the independent and autonomous nuclear family.
Dystopian fiction was preceded by utopian fiction, beginning in 1516 with Thomas More’s novel Utopia. (The synthetic Greek toponym “Utopia” was simply More’s joking name for his setting—an invented South American island—as the word literally means “no place,” or “nowhere.”) Utopian novels were immensely popular in 19th-century England, as humanist philosophies and medical and industrial technologies at the tail end of the Enlightenment combined to suggest a better and brighter tomorrow. Theoretically, a fruitful Eden was almost within reach. Yes, dystopia is commonly described as the opposite of utopia, but this obscures a common trope in which dystopic future societies are presented as the aftermath (or consequence) of failed attempts to bring about an actual utopia.
Perhaps the precursor to dystopian fiction is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s anti-utopian novel Notes from the Underground, published in 1864. Dostoevsky’s skeptical narrator monologues at length on the preposterousness of the idea that science and Western philosophy were ushering in a radical new era of human progress: “Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne.” Dostoevsky’s intention, partly, was to deride and pick apart Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s utilitarian, materialist novel, What Is to Be Done?, in which characters make grand, romantic statements about the joyful founding of an eternal, collectivist utopia. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man sees two major flaws in this thinking. First, if given the opportunity to submit to rational prescriptions for a better life, people would rather be free to suffer. Second, idealism—when taken too seriously—tends to breed dissociation, distortion, and interpersonal alienation.
Today we associate a handful of qualities with the concept of dystopia: governmental overreach, unnatural social configurations, paranoia, state-driven propaganda, digitally panoptic surveillance, and other alienating technologies. However, none of these characteristics are intrinsic to the genre, just as dystopian fiction isn’t necessarily satirical or allegorical, regardless of the popularity of Black Mirror. Dystopia is such a diverse and mutable canon overall that there are no essential commonalities—with one possible exception: a significant distortion of family relations.
Nearly all landmark works of dystopian fiction feature an oppressive governmental order that interferes with what we might term the “natural” process of family-making: choosing a partner and raising a family freely and relatively unencumbered by external power structures. This is observed from the outset in the seminal dystopian novel We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, published in Russia in 1921. Set in the walled-off, hyper-rational future society One State, in which sexual liaisons are overseen by the government, the conflict in We is precipitated by a moment of illicit flirtation, and the principal transgression upon which the plot later hangs is an unlicensed pregnancy.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, fetuses gestate in artificial wombs and are raised by the state. Here, too, an illegal pregnancy is a major plot point, and the word “father” is an epithet. In 1984, George Orwell’s Oceania allows marriage but prohibits divorce, as well as non-procreative sex. Winston Smith’s central offense is his illegal affair with Julia, and it is her whom he must betray to restore his safety and good standing. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag’s unhappy, alienating marriage is the consequence of an illiterate, spiritually unwell society. In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, infants are not raised by their biological mothers but are assigned to families—if they are not summarily euthanized. Even in the bubblegum dystopia The Hunger Games, the action commences with Katniss’s motherly intervention on her little sister’s behalf, sparing her from certain death, allowing her to continue to have a childhood.
The most influential dystopian novel of this moment is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, thanks to the Hulu miniseries adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss, previously a different sort of feminist icon in AMC’s Mad Men. In Atwood’s novel, a near-future United States is replaced by an Old-Testament Christian theonomy in which healthy young women are forced to bear children for high-status men and their infertile wives. This feature of Atwood’s world-building can’t exactly be chalked up to pure fantasy crafted in the welter of creative genius. To borrow a phrase, we’ve seen this before. In an essay for Glamour last year, Jenae Holloway writes that she is “frustrated and jealous that [her] white feminist allies are able to digest The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of a fictitious foreboding”—in other words, that the show does not strike them as it strikes her: with a sense of “déjà vu.” Holloway’s essay reminds us that an even cursory look into slavery in the Americas reveals separations of children from parents, forced adoptions, and rape as standard to the experience. Breaking up families is not simply a systematic and normalized aspect of state control; it is a requirement to maintain the system itself.
Historically, human slavery may have been a relatively limited phenomena in Atwood’s Canada; however, indigenous families were routinely shattered by administrative bodies between 1944 and 1984, including 20,000 children in the “Sixties Scoop” alone. Conventionally, the non-academic reader or viewer only associates these phenomena with science fiction when the writer works in this palette explicitly—Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred and her short story “Bloodchild” come to mind—but once one considers the potential for reverberations of chattel slavery in literary dystopias, one begins to see them everywhere: in Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” wherein a teenage übermensch is taken from his parents, who later witness his televised execution; in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” where citizens of an agrarian community cannot protect their spouses or children from ritualized public execution; and most obviously Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which depicts a perfect society enabled by the unending agony of a single imprisoned, tortured child.
None of this is to say that participation in a family is categorically “natural,” or what legitimizes one’s existence. The world has more than enough space for people who abstain from family-making. Nor does this observation require us to attempt to define what a family is. What is important is to note that our most successful, compelling, and enduring literary dystopias consistently present antagonists to the nuclear family dynamic. They create rigid legal frameworks around everything from sexual union to rearing of children. This is the dreaded commonality at the root of mainline dystopian fiction: the simple formula, “government authority > family independence.”
Whether you were raised by biological or adoptive parents, older siblings, or more distant relatives—or by a foster parent, or some other surrogate or legal guardian—what you share with the vast majority of humans is that you were once the object of a small, imperfect social unit responsible for your protection and care. This is the primary social contract, based not on law or philosophy, but on love and trust. For better and worse, our bonds to our families pre-exist and preponderate the accident of our nationality. Accepting this truth may be the first test of a legitimate state. It is the illegitimate, insecure regime that seeks to disrupt and broadly supersede the imperfect moral authority of reasonable, well-intended parents—in all of their many forms and situations.
In separating migrant families seeking amnesty, President Trump brought us into dystopia at last. It is a small comfort that he clearly knew from the outset that this action was morally untenable. He told reporters that he “hated” the policy of family separation, claiming that it was “the Democrats’ fault,” the repercussion of a do-nothing Congress. In reality, neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush separated migrant children from their parents as a standard practice. There is no law or settlement that requires detained families to be broken up, and the general legal consensus was that if Trump were being honest—if family separation had actually been an unwanted, pre-existing policy—he could have ended it, overnight, “with a phone call.”
As usual, executive dissimulation instigated bizarre performances lower down the chain of command: On June 18, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen held an extraordinary press conference in which she denied the existence of an official family-separation policy while simultaneously arguing for its legitimacy. Nielsen’s denials were particularly astonishing as two months before her press conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced—publicly and on camera—the instigation of family separation as a deterrent to improper border crossings. In fact, the DHS had already published guidelines explaining the system of family separation and admitted to detaining approximately 2,000 migrant children. The truth was that the institution of a heartless, zero-tolerance border policy was a calculated effort led by administration strategist Stephen Miller, who was also a key architect of the travel ban in 2017. Writing for The Atlantic, McKay Koppins characterizes Miller’s push for this policy as overtly xenophobic and intentionally inhumane, designed to appeal to Trump’s base while also sowing chaos among his opponents.
To our nation’s credit, outrage was abundant and came from all corners. Evangelist Franklin Graham said that family separation was “disgraceful.” Laura Bush wrote that the policy was “cruel” and that it broke her heart. Even former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci described the policy as “inhumane” and “atrocious.” Governors from eight states announced they would withdraw or deny National Guard troops previously promised to help secure the Southwest border. Even Ivanka Trump, who has yet to be accused of hypersensitivity, allegedly asked her father to change course on family separations at the border. Condemnation also came from both houses of Congress, with Senate Republicans vowing to end family separations if Trump did not. On June 20, after repeatedly claiming that only Congress could end family separations at the border, Trump reversed course, signing an executive order that would ostensibly keep migrant families together during future detentions. Technically, this order allowed family separations to continue as a discretionary practice, until the ACLU brought a lawsuit before Judge Dana Sabraw of the Federal District Court in San Diego, who issued an injunction that temporarily halted family separations and required all separated migrant children be reunited with their parents within 30 days—a requirement that was not met.
As far as steps down a slippery slope toward totalitarianism go, Trump’s “zero-tolerance” border policy has been significant. Nearly 3,000 migrant children were traumatically separated from their parents, with some flown across the country. In Texas, children were routed to a detention facility in a converted Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville and a tent-city detention center near the border station in Tornillo—where summertime temperatures regularly approach 100 F. Some migrant children and babies were kept in cages—a term the administration resisted but could not deny, just as the smiling image of Donald Trump in the converted Walmart cannot be reasonably considered anything other than gloating propaganda.
For many migrants, significant emotional and psychological damage has already been done. Recently, dozens of female migrants in a Seattle-area detention facility were separated from their children, having to endure hearing them crying through the walls. One such detainee informed U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal that she told a Border Patrol agent she wanted to see her children, to which the agent replied, “You will never see your children again. Families don’t exist here.” That same week, a Honduran man named Marco Antonio Muñoz, who had been separated from his wife and toddler after crossing the Southwest border, hanged himself in his Texas holding cell.
Not only has the executive branch of this government launched an assault on the dignity and sanctity of the family; they have simultaneously begun work to erode the permanence of citizenship, through a process of “denaturalization”—an action not attempted since the paranoid 1950s of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare. This would transfer the authority to strip citizenship from the court system to law enforcement agencies, such as DHS, or ICE, who would presumably go looking for naturalized Americans who may have misrepresented themselves in some way during their application for citizenship. This situation would subject naturalized citizens to the paranoia and potential exploitation of an East German-like police state, in which they are under warrantless surveillance, threatened by informants, and potentially expugnable for nothing more heinous than a paperwork error. Simultaneously, conservatives such as Tucker Carlson have argued for a referendum on birthright citizenship, the foundation of the equality Americans purport to enjoy. This fits with the administration’s pattern of using diverse methodologies to thwart and rescind legal and illegal residency alike, in what has increasingly come to look like a new front in the multi-pronged effort to alter the racial and cultural demographics of the electorate. This, too, conforms to the genre of dystopia: the existence of a large and oppressed underclass living adjacent to privileged elites, who are sometimes floored to learn that not everyone perceives the status quo as the next-best thing to a true utopia.
If given even tacit approval, policies like separating families at the border will lead to an open season on immigrants—legal residents and undocumented migrants alike—as well as millions of other natural and naturalized citizens who are not both white and perfectly fluent in English. We will see an emboldened expansion of unconstitutional checkpoints at places like airports and bus depots. We will see the normalization of racial profiling. Our children will see their friends taken out of school without warning. They will be disappeared.
But if we’ve read our dystopian literature, we are prepared. To a degree, we are insulated. We can understand this moment in history, and how comforting it must feel to curl up inside the illusory sense of security offered by an impenetrable border, or a leader who boldly intones our weaker ideas and more shameful suspicions, or some fatuous, utopian aphorism about making a nation great again. We will remind ourselves and each other what is at stake. We will remember that the only thing we need to know about utopia is that nobody actually lives there.
Image: Flickr/Karen Roe
The suburban Dick and Jane characters of A.M. Homes’s oeuvre smoke crack, set their homes ablaze, lust for Barbie dolls, and teach teenage girls the art of perversion. In her new novel, the trend continues with a duplicitous protagonist whose actions take us straight to the divided heart of human consciousness.
Spineless college professor and Nixon scholar Harold Silver is wearing his brother’s pants. He’s using his brother’s driver’s license, living in his brother’s home, and taking care of his brother’s kids. Younger taller brother George, a successful TV executive and the more charming, more mercurial half of the pair, has killed wife Jane after finding her in bed with brother Harry. Within the first few pages of the novel, Jane is dead and George has been exiled to The Lodge, an in-patient facility for wealthy murderers with good insurance, leaving Harry to pick up the pieces of his brother’s dramatically disaggregating life. A year later, Harry will reminisce on the night he stood pressed against Jane over the greasy carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey and he’ll ask the question that serves as the title of the book: “May We Be Forgiven?”
Wait. Rewind. May who be forgiven?
We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about the plot. The twists and turns in May We Be Forgiven are classic A.M. Homes. At first glance, Harry is a bumbling everyday man who imagines himself, much like his unlikely hero Richard Nixon, an unassuming salt-of-the-earth kind of guy who just happens to find himself in one compromising situation after another. He stumbles onto his brother’s internet porn where people advertise their bare bits like a pride of lions on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Then, as if there’s no other option, he drives across town for a real-time tryst with a woman who insists on paying for sex because she wants a man who can feel both the pleasure and the degradation. Later, we find Harry seeking redemption at a church meeting where, under the alias Nit, he divulges his darkest secrets to a group of people who respond by asking if he has a drinking problem (oops, wrong meeting). After several visits to The Lodge, things get even stranger when George is transferred to The Woodsman, a “low-cost survival-of-the-fittest penal colony” where micro-chipped prisoners police themselves under constant satellite surveillance, also Wild Kingdom-style.
Somewhere amidst murder, kinky sex, and Harry’s budding relationships with a collection of random strangers, is a nested story about impeached President Richard Nixon. Homes’s satire on the troubled history of the American Presidency not only adds a layer of complexity to Harry’s character, it also raises questions about our ignorance of American institutions of government. But, as with the rest of the novel, she administers this medicine with a dose of scintillating humor. For instance, in Harry’s theory of Presidential politics, there are two types of Presidents: one type has a lot of sex and the other type starts wars. In short, says Harry, and “don’t quote me because this is an incomplete expression of a more complex premise — I believe blow jobs prevent wars.”
One can certainly follow the advice of the dust jacket and read the novel as a darkly comic tale about a family reinventing itself after a series of blunders and tragedies. But wouldn’t it be more fun to pay attention to the book’s duplicity, its cornucopia of references to history, culture and authors like John Cheever, who appears in the novel as an apparition, and Robert Louis Stevenson, who shows up indirectly when George tells Harry to mind the black spot on his Gertrude Jekyll roses? Wouldn’t it be more interesting, in other words, to read Harry as a man who doesn’t know he’s gone mad and whose brother George, like the ghost of Cheever, is also an apparition? Scenes where Harry asks George if “we screw[ed]…the neighbor lady” leave the impression that there’s more going on here than pathologically blurred boundaries. Similarly, when Harry looks in the mirror and watches his face divide and fall in half, when he considers himself as much a murderer as George, and asks himself why he’s out of context as if he doesn’t really exist, we feel a sense of vertigo.
This does beg the question, who is the “we” asking to be forgiven in the opening paragraph of the novel? Certainly readers will find in Harry echoes of the adulterer, John the Baptist, praying for us all to be forgiven our sins. Homes repeatedly plays upon religious irony, including one of my favorite scenes at a Yom Kippur service in which Harry joyously proclaims, “I am guilty. I am guilty of even more than I realized I could be guilty of…,” while a rabbi recites a litany of familiar sins. Beneath the surface, Harry never really connects his guilt with his actions. He’s a multifaceted character who projects everything dark and desirous onto a brother he can’t distinguish from himself, suggesting that the “we” is a beastly side of Harry, personified in George. But this remains an open question because Homes is a novelist who immerses readers in the world of her characters and keeps them there from beginning to end. May We Be Forgiven is a novel that never breaks that pact.
This, friends, is the crowning achievement of the novel. As unreliable narrators go, Homes’s fraternal doppelgänger outdoes both that of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and the unnamed insomniac putz who fights with his alter-ego in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. The difference is that there’s a certain rationality in the two wildly popular precursors, which allows the reader to sit back and watch the character’s insanity unfold. James Wood calls this kind of narration “reliably unreliable.” Referencing seminal examples of unreliable first-person narration like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Nabokov’s Lolita, Wood argues that these novels teach us how to read the character’s instability because their authors alert us to it and show us how to plug the holes.
In May We Be Forgiven, the reader doesn’t have the luxury of distance. From page one, she is inside Harry’s head, inside his body, feeling his dizzying confusion, perhaps even hallucinating up a whole makeshift family, unable to distinguish reality from a dream in one moment and just a regular guy in the next. This places Harry Silver in the far more rare category of “unreliably unreliable” narrators, a category populated by only a handful of novels, most notably the underground man of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground.
David Foster Wallace said that good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. This book may not be the first choice for those who want to be comfortable. Its point of view is unsettling, even outright disturbing. At times, I felt like I was sitting on the weighted bob of Foucault’s pendulum (also noted in the book), the background shifting constantly and characters appear and disappear as the pendulum swings from one context to the next. Other times, I felt as though I was inside an Escher piece, from one angle viewing a perfect portrait of a mad man; from another, a world that looked frighteningly familiar, Harry’s madness a symptom of the fragmented, dissociated, techno-happy culture we live in.
While Homes’s tragicomedy may trouble some readers, it meets and far exceeds Wallace’s criteria for good fiction. For readers like me who choose Homes’s work because it reminds us to be courageous and shows us how to do it, May We Be Forgiven does not disappoint: it gives us a rare journey inside the divided heart of human consciousness, not a brief visit from a safe distance.
A.M. Homes remains the most daring voice of her generation and May We Be Forgiven is her magnum opus.
My Struggle is a six-volume memoir written by Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard. The six volumes combine for a total of 3,600 pages, and despite the memoir’s length, it has become a literary sensation across Europe. Translated into thirteen languages, and the winner of many literary prizes, My Struggle has sold nearly a million copies. The first volume – simply titled My Struggle: Book One – is now available for the first time in the United States, translated into English by Don Bartlett.
Knausgaard, at age 43, is now retired from writing – reportedly the sixth and final volume of My Struggle ends with him announcing and explaining his retirement – and living in the Swedish countryside with his wife and children, where he plans to open a small publishing company. As much as Knausgaard gained from the writing of My Struggle, he also lost. He gives such an assiduously detailed and brutally honest account of his experiences, his thoughts, and his feelings that several of his family members and former friends have broken ties with him. Many readers in his home country, too, feel that he overstepped his bounds in the betrayal of confidences and violation of trusts. Knausgaard questions if, given the opportunity to travel back in time, he would write it all over again. “Do you think your literature is worth your uncle, or whoever? Is literature more important than hurting people? You can’t argue that,” he told the Guardian in March when the book was released in Britain.
Knausgaard will likely go through some emotional labor in his attempt to balance literature’s value with the relationships his literature cost him, but readers are left only with the books. Readers experience My Struggle as art and art only, and it is great art.
Book One of My Struggle begins with Knausgaard wondering why Western culture has such ritualistic and social demand to cover up dead bodies. If someone dies on a lawn, the first instinct is to cover the body with a blanket. Morgues are in the hospitals’ lower levels, and when bodies are transferred to the morgues, they are done so underneath a sheet. After a funeral, the family watches the body of their loved one lowered into the ground, where she will forever rest below five feet of dirt and a few inches of grass. He then, without resolving the question of burial, begins reflecting on a memory from his childhood – a day when, at eight years old, he thought he saw the ocean form a face during a news broadcast about missing boat and crew. He immediately told his father, who reacted with mean-spirited scorn and dismissal. The opening of the book gives a good introduction to its themes and its style. Knausgaard is investigating himself through his experiences with a cold, at best, and cruel, at worst, father. Relationships and death give the book its turning points, and it is written in a reflective style that, often without warning or provocation, jumps from philosophical meditation to the narrative of memory. The subjects of the philosophical reflections are big – popular music, visual art, literature, parenting, pornography, death – and many of the stories are seemingly small – a good fifty pages of the book has Knausgaard leaping in and out of a memory involving a New Year’s Eve party he attended as a teenager.
The stories of Knausgaard’s childhood are universally relatable. They include reflective accounts of his first kiss and first beer, his learning how to play guitar just enough to join a bad rock band, his troublemaking with friends, and his first love. His childhood makes up part one of Book One, and part two has him writing as an adult during the months leading up to his father’s death. At that point, his father was a full blown alcoholic. Knausgaard confesses to wishing him dead, but when the moment actually arrived, he sobbed uncontrollably and cursed himself for “stupid sentimentality.” As an adult, his life becomes more specific – much of it is rooted in the routines, concerns, and ambitions of being a writer. The constant, however, is self-discovery, and although parts one and two of Book One are related in that his father’s death causes him to revisit and reevaluate his childhood, and memories return to him in new clarity as he prepares to bury his father, the book refreshingly lacks a coming together chapter. Knausgaard refuses to tie up Book One in a bow. There is no great lesson – though there are many insights. He doesn’t look out a window one day and realize he was wrong about his father. His life does not fundamentally change. His life just continues, in tragedy and triumph, in the mundane and the dramatic. It just is.
Towards the conclusion, Knausgaard solves his own riddle about the concealment of dead bodies. Death, he argues, is the last remaining reminder of something beyond the domain of human intelligence. Religious experience is no longer powerful in Western Culture. Art is dehumanized to a point of lacking transcendent capabilities, and therefore death is the last part of life beyond the control of the intellect – outside the realm of technique. Death is the ultimate mystery of the mystery within life, but for the living, death is also a lesson in humility. As Knausgaard concludes, “For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives, but in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.”
Knausgaard’s struggle is everyone’s struggle. It is the search for meaning, and the desperately internal hunt for purpose. The “My” in the title is crucial, because while the major elements of his struggle are shared, the particularity of his life, his experiences, and his relationships make the struggle uniquely his own. According to European reviews, in Book Four he wrestles with titling his book with the same phrase Hitler used for his prison memoir, but those reviewers, and there are many, who obsess over that commonality miss the point.
The point is found in the book’s language. The language, what Knausgaard calls the “banality of the everyday,” complements the microscopic scrutiny under which Knausgaard puts his life. He will spend a paragraph describing a fly’s movement, and then spend three paragraphs describing a shirt his father wore, and then at some point, write something brilliant about the nature of love. In the tradition of St. Augustine’s Confessions and Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground, Knausgaard has fashioned a book that contains an immersive world that begins to feel more real than reality. When the reader enters that world, she accepts an invitation to tour every detail of Knausgaard’s life.
The late Jacques Derrida wrote that the power of relatability comes from particularity. The more particular a story, the more universal it becomes. A contrived attempt at universality is typically too vague to grab people’s emotions. When reading My Struggle, I found childhood memories that had not occurred to me in several years coming back to me in vivid color and specificity. Then, I found myself, just as Knausgaard is able to in his book, reflecting on them in a new light, and gain new truths never before considered.
The overwhelming quality of the reading experience, and the dominant feeling of the book, is melancholic. It is melancholy to review the meaning of your life, especially in the face of inevitable death – death of loved ones and one’s own death.
Knausgaard, in Book One and I would assume over the stretch of the 3,600 pages that make up all six volumes of My Struggle, shows that even if introspection is tough and painful, it is important. By so closely examining his life and so fearlessly presenting it, he is able to teach the reader the true danger of investigating the self and honestly dealing with the results.
Soren Kierkegaard was fond of telling readers that there once lived a man who never knew he existed until the morning he woke up dead. Social networking and ubiquitous communicative technology facilitate a self-surveillance state, and reality television is the externalized form of the surveillance mentality. It sells voyeurism as amusement, and in the selling of “drama” for the sake of “drama” it succeeds in creating an alternative television universe in which the trajectory of an individual’s life is reduced to triviality. In an age of superficiality, Knausgaard has done something subversive by intensely inspecting himself and revealing the fraud of our self-comforting delusions, and the artifice of confessionalism as entertainment.
To summarize the act of writing and releasing the book, Knausgaard said, “I have given away my soul.” That may sound extreme, but to give away the soul, one must first know he has a soul, where to find that soul, and what exactly is that soul. That is another struggle, and in raising the bet of the existential philosophical tradition, Knausgaard may have shown that the greatest and most important struggle is for each person to learn how to give away the soul. Give away the soul to prepare to die, and give away the soul to prepare to live.
Nikolai Grozni’s debut novel, Wunderkind, is a searing tale of music behind the Iron Curtain, two years before the fall of Communism. Konstantin, a 15 year-old piano prodigy, is a student at the Sofia School for the Gifted, and spends his time raging against the inhumanity of the regime, acting out, rebelling against his teachers, and playing the piano with desperate abandon. It is an outright autobiographical text, Grozni admits; he himself was an accomplished concert pianist in his youth, and studied at the Sofia School for the Gifted in the late 1980s. After stints at the Berklee College of Music and a Buddhist monastery, he obtained his MFA in creative writing from Brown, and currently lives in France.
One of the most beautiful things about Wunderkind is its contrasts in tone– like Chopin’s Ballade No 2, which Konstantin takes on, knowing that it is “too elusive, too impossible to measure” even to be meaningfully recorded; it begins with a Mozart-esque simplicity, and then moves into more moody territory, before exploding with rage. Grozni captures the angst of adolescence as Konstantin moves through the sad beauty of Sofia in a way that seems almost romantic; but those passages will be followed by reminders of the inhumanity of the world he lives in. It is a landscape that recalls Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go — Grozni’s characters are doomed by the system but full of life and hope, scraps of beauty in a dystopian paradise. With a blistering narrative of violence and lyricism, Grozni captures them playing their instruments.
“Nothing is more difficult than to talk about music,” wrote the composer Camille Saint-Saëns of his own attempts at writing music criticism; “it is already tricky enough for musicians, but it is almost impossible for others: even the strongest, most subtle minds lose their way.” Grozni manages to pull off the near-impossible feat of not only writing about music, but of doing so in a way that pushes the reader to the limits of what language can express.
I had a chance to chat with him when he was in Paris to read at Shakespeare & Co.
The Millions: You really nail the anxieties of being a musician in this book. That passage where Konstantin describes the feeling of becoming incredibly self-conscious while performing, and to continue performing you have to forget what you’re doing again — it’s so right on. To a certain extent, when you’re playing the piano, you have to just not think about what you’re doing. How is it for you with writing? Is there a similar call for conscious unconsciousness?
Nikolai Grozni: Absolutely, only in writing it is much more difficult to achieve. When you play an instrument you can always count on the sounds and harmonies, even accidental ones, to carry you away. With writing all you have is the sound of your own thoughts. It could be maddening, boring, or cathartic.
TM: I think one of the things that says so much about Konstantin and the problems he has living under the Communist regime is the fact that he can’t commit to one set of fingering — “By the time I learned a piece well, I had access to at least three or four sets of fingerings, which added a degree of unpredictability to my playing because I could never really know for certain how my fingers would fall when I walked onstage and faced the grand piano.” This seems irresponsible or self-destructive on one level, but is also perhaps a safeguard against becoming an automaton, because it makes it more likely that you will remain uncomfortably conscious during the performance. How does this fit in with the larger subject of the book? It seems everyone around Konstantin is a Communist automaton, whereas all the “misfits” of the school — Vadim, Irina, Konstantin — have this uncomfortable awareness. It doesn’t necessarily serve them well.
NG: It’s true, Konstantin’s biggest fear is that he will become an automaton, a cogwheel in the system, like all the rest. This affects his piano playing as well. He is constantly aware of the dangers of playing a piece the same exact way again and again. This is the reason why he also can’t write anything during his literature exam — he is afraid that by allowing the thoughts of the teachers, of the apparatchiks, in his head, he will become one of them. What fuels his rebellion is a deep sense of anger at the world around him, and, ultimately, this very anger destroys both him and Irina. But Konstantin wants to fail, that is the paradox. He feels that if he fails he will have proven to himself that didn’t get corrupted.
TM: Your descriptions of the music are wonderfully synaesthetic — did that come naturally? Were you always thinking about music in literary terms, even back then?
NG: I’ve always thought about harmonies, notes, and passages in terms of colors and visual portraits. I think this probably comes naturally to kids with perfect pitch — when you have nothing else to hold on to but sound, you begin adding colors, feelings, and ideas. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a perfect example of how a composer sees the music.
TM: Are there other writers who have written about music who influenced you, either positively or negatively?
NG: For me, Franz Liszt’s Life of Chopin is one of the best books about music. Chopin’s letters and George Sand’s diaries are also excellent sources of inspiration. Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser is a fantastic book but there’s not much music in it. When I set out to write Wunderkind I wanted the book to look like a conductor’s score.
TH: You have this fascinating passage in the novel where Konstantin claims that Chopin is the only composer to write in the first person, speaking directly from his own experience, whereas other composers are writing in the third person, telling out about things that happened to other people. It’s an interesting observation coming in the middle of a novel in the first person. Do you share his impatience with the third person?
NG: I love the first person, in writing, in music, and in life. All great modern novels, as far as I am concerned, are in the first person (Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, Beckett’s The Unnamable, etc.). Incidentally, all three of my Bulgarian novels were written in the third person, and I think there are many advantages of telling a story in an omniscient voice — the ease of changing stage sets, of doing travel, exposition, tension, and, very importantly, humor — but, in the end, I felt that I would never be able to go far enough in revealing consciousness in the third person. For me, the purpose of writing and reading is to understand and reveal the mind, and while there’s a great deal that can be glimpsed and inferred about the mind and the human condition from third person stories like Chekov’s “A Nervous Breakdown,” they can hardly compare with the authenticity, depth, and rawness of the first person narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. After all, third person means someone else; first person means you.
TM: Can you talk a bit about the frequent use of mythological material (Icarus; Prometheus; Erebus, god of Chaos; Erinyes, the Furies)? You seem to be rooting Bulgaria in this heroic, invented past; there were so many mentions of Thracians that I had to look them up — they are a tribe from Greece who were apparently the original settlers of Sofia — and was delighted to find that Orpheus was meant to have been king of the Thracian tribe of Cicones!
NG: You don’t have to do a lot of digging in Bulgaria to find the old gods. The pagan past is very palpable and vivid even today. There are cults of sun-worshipers who wake before dawn and perform oblations at sunrise; there are thousands of ancient temples and pagan sites in the mountains, a lot of them still waiting to be excavated. Orpheus is believed to have descended to the underworld by entering a cave in the Rhodope Mountains. On top of that, Bulgaria is a place where black magic has always played a very powerful role. When you hear that someone is a witch or a sorcerer, it’s not at all a joke. People pay a lot of money to destroy someone through magic.
TM: Were you really a monk in India? How did that come about?
NG: I’ve always wanted to live in India. Even as a small child I was convinced that if someone wanted to meet the wise men and learn the truth, he or she would have to go to India and live up in the mountains. So, one day, while I was still in college, I just packed my bags and left for India. I stayed there more than four years, and, yes, I was a Buddhist monk. I learned Tibetan and studied at one of the best Tibetan Buddhist universities.
TM: How did you end up in France?
NG: I’m not sure. It started as a why-not idea, and I’m still here, three years later.
Image courtesy Cara Tobe
I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.
I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.
Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?
There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.
And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)
And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.
I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.
In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:
Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.
If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.